Skip to content

Music teacher has inspired hundreds

If you're a retired school teacher, you no doubt have run into former students. With luck, they stop and shake your hand and thank you for what you taught them.

If you're a retired school teacher, you no doubt have run into former students. With luck, they stop and shake your hand and thank you for what you taught them. At the end of a long teaching career, what remains are memories and relationships with a few students.

For many private classical piano teachers, this is even more true. Instead of having a student for a year or two like a school teacher, a private piano teacher may have a student for years even decades and sometimes even several generations from the same family.

For Royal Conservatory of Music affiliate piano teacher Bette-Joan Cebuliak Rac, the 350 or more students she has guided over more than 50 years of teaching are like her own children.

Teachers like Cebuliak Rac, or 'Madame Rac' as she is known to her students, see their teaching careers as part of a long chain, receiving music knowledge from their teachers and passing on the same gift to their students.

Madame Rac was born in Edmonton in 1944 and grew up in the Highlands as an only child of entrepreneurial parents: a Czechoslovakian father who worked as a custom tailor and a Canadian mother from Killam who worked as a beautician. Her father signed her up for ballet at the age of three and piano at the age of five. At first Bette-Joan's mother bought a cardboard keyboard for her daughter to practice at the kitchen table. Later her parents bought her a real piano; they found it stored in a barn and it still had the mouse droppings inside to prove it.

Dance and music competed for her free time, but her dance career came to a sudden end at the age of 21 when she broke her femur in a car accident. After five months of bed-ridden hospitalization, she continued studying piano through the Royal Conservatory of Music earning a Piano Solo Performer Diploma at the age of 23 and a Piano Teaching Diploma a year later.

Around this time the number of students began to increase. At her busiest, she had 80 half-hour weekly time slots, teaching more than 40 students, six days a week. Her records indicate that she has taught a total of 47,808 hours.

These days, she has three remaining students (she is not accepting any new students) studying music history, harmony counterpoint and analysis.

Her lessons are held in the cramped front living room of her Queen Mary home, taken up mostly by an old red Williams Newscale grand piano and stacks of music books and paperwork.

In late November Madame Rac was the recipient of a Salute to Excellence citation award from the City of Edmonton. In typical style, upon receiving the award, Madame Rac gave credit to her students and her musical mentors, among them teachers Kathleen Gould, Robert Pounder, Carmen Blomert and Dr. Gordon Hallett.

"When I walked on that stage, it was not just me. It was my students," she says. "It's not me, it is Mr. Pounder's training that you are getting from me. I am just the instrument that is passing the knowledge of music and art and culture on to the next generation."

She remembers playing piano at the age of 17 on Harry Farmer's CFRN TV show Recital. She remembers meeting the wives of Ernest Manning and J. Percy Page after winning a $100 scholarship. But the memories she holds most dear are about her students.

One such student is Vince Anderson, now a local IT professional, church organist, and Celtic musician who was just six years old when he started lessons. He worked hard for 10 years, steadily progressing through the various Royal Conservatory of Music exams until suddenly quitting at 16.

"When I finally told Bette-Joan that I was tossing it all, we couldn't look each other in the eye," Anderson wrote many years later in Macleans. But through a combination of fate, coincidence, and perhaps a little guilt, he restarted his lessons 25 years later.

Madame Rac vividly remembers the day he returned.

"He walked in and it was like we never left each other."

Another student is Sabin BozsÓ, now a doctor and University of Alberta heart surgeon. He took his first piano lesson at the age of 10 and kept it up until he was 21 when he was preparing for medical school.

"When he applied to medical school, they asked him to count backwards in twos as quickly and accurately as possible. He had no problem with that," Madame Rac recalls attributing the numerical skill to her piano and theory instruction.

Other memorable students include her first student Joan Gascoyne Hager and Beth Tussman, who started young, stopped to pursue careers, and later returned. Then there is Mary Jane Degier Nedved, her oldest student who restarted piano lessons at the age of 63. "After a dormant musical period in my life, I found Madame Rac who with her endless patience and encouragement got my piano lessons blooming," she wrote in a letter supporting Madame Rac's nomination.

The Toop family stand out because three generations of Toops have taken lessons from Madame Rac over the course of 40 years.

Her most successful student was Melody Asmus who attained the Alberta Registered Music Teachers' Association's highest marks in the Royal Conservatory Grade 6 and 8 piano and Grade 3 and 4 History exams.

"Madame Rac's love of music, along with her dedicated and enthusiastic style of teaching, has shown that her profession is not just a job, but also her life," said Melody Asmus' mother Christine Krawchuk.

Thinking about the recent award from the city, Madame Rac says: "It wasn't so much about me, it was about my students. It was such a nice reward after all these years ... to receive it on Canada's 150th birthday means a lot to me."